One of the most entertaining Old Testament prophetic characters is Jonah – yes, the man who reportedly spent three days in the belly of the whale, the only part of the account most people know. I readily identify with Jonah: a little cantankerous, a little self-willed, rather reluctant to follow instruction. I picture him played by Ricky Gervais.
All the prophets were fallible people, none more so than Jonah – yet his ministry proves, by God’s grace, to be marvellously effective.
Jonah lived in the 8th-century BC when Assyria was the world power. He heard the voice of God telling him to go to Nineveh (the capital) and call on the people to repent.
“No thanks,” thinks Jonah, “that sounds a bit tricky,” and he goes down to the port to flee from God in the opposite direction.
But his ship meets such a great storm that the sailors are terrified and cast lots to find out whose fault it is. The lot falls on Jonah, who confesses and tells them to throw him into the sea. Immediately a great fish swallows him and later vomits him ashore.
When the voice of God comes a second time, Jonah sets off for Nineveh, and walks through the city proclaiming that if they don’t change their ways the city will be overthrown.
To his amazement, the people listen – even the king, who covers himself with sackcloth – and God tells Jonah that he will not bring upon them the promised calamity.
But – and this is such a human characteristic – Jonah now is furious with God: the Assyrians should have been punished!
Jonah goes and sulks outside the city in the searing heat, and God makes a climbing plant grow for shade. But overnight the plant dies, and Jonah is even more enraged. God tells him, “you had compassion for the plant which you did not grow. Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city?″
Jonah offers some inescapable lessons for the believer. Most important is that God’s will cannot be thwarted; what he decrees comes to pass. As the axiom has it, man proposes but God disposes.
Next is God’s incredible mercy, which he extends to all peoples and all nations. As the Apostle Peter puts it 800 years later, “God is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance”.
Third is the importance of repentance – turning toward God from rebellion. This is a constant theme of Jesus, but less emphasised today.
Psalm 33 endorses Jonah: “The Lord foils the plans of the nations; he thwarts the purposes of the peoples. But the plans of the Lord stand firm forever.”
Barney Zwartz is a Senior Fellow for The Centre for Public Christianity. This article first appeared in The Sunday Age.